Paris. Winter makes all the notes short.

How do conductors make decisions about how to play a piece of music?

I had an experience recently which gives me the chance to explain what happens – at least for me, and at least partially.

In Paris spring has now arrived, but I am thinking back to the extraordinary winter that we had. There were many days when the sky was incredibly blue – all day. It would be cold – very crisp – but the skies were so brilliant that it seemed like they were painted.


And these days were so exceptional that I found that my whole idea of a piece of music would change after just a few minutes outside.

To explain… often I work on a piece by playing it on the keyboard. I start thinking about various options – such as how fast, how to play the rhythms, or whether the tone should be full or light. Then I find that my ideas gradually come together over the next few hours and days and weeks.

However, on these crisp blue days I found that I would leave the apartment with one set of ideas, take a short walk – down the street, past the cafés, the printing shops, and the boulangerie – and by the time I got back, all the sounds in my imagination would have changed.

For example, for the Serenade by the Czech composer Josef Suk all the notes of the accompanying instruments became shorter – crisp and sharp, just like the air and the light outside.

And for Beethoven’s ninth symphony, the sound became tight and clear, and all the melodies from the first and second movements became clear-cut and sharply chiselled – like the edges of the buildings or the leafless branches of the trees against the sky.

On the other hand, it did make studying the Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun) by Debussy much more difficult. Those long, languid, melodies are too summery for crisp days!

It truly is a curious and complex process, how our lives interact with music (even though this is only a very simple example).

For now however, I am happy to think that even though the winter has passed, in some way those brilliant days will always be preserved for me in my ideas for these pieces of music. It is just like having a photo album – for me these pieces will forever have a little part of the bright blue of this winter in Paris. (And maybe even the Prélude – with a clear outline those melodies do sound very poignant!)

[Photo at ]


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